Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez is one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Legislature but a controversial bill she proposed on the future of solar power failed after intense pushback from environmentalists and her own party.
Gonzalez, who’s championed rooftop solar in the past, proposed to cut how much a person with solar panels on their roof could make by selling any excess energy back to the grid under bill AB 1139. The bill failed in the Assembly.
Gonzalez and Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, who represents parts of eastern Los Angeles, made an equity argument: Solar owners are typically richer and Whiter and can afford to own an array of panels on their roof. And they have incentives to sell any excess energy back to the grid. But as more solar users leave the grid (and start profiting off of it), that means poorer Californians are left to pay increasingly higher rates to support the traditional energy grid, outfit with poles, wires and power plants.
It’s a similar economic argument the California Public Utilities Commission made in a February report, which warned that the poor would bear the burden of the state’s clean energy shift. San Diegans pay some of the highest electricity rates in the country. And utilities are planning to spend billions more on infrastructure and maintenance to avoid sparking wildfires, costs which haven’t totally been calculated into rates yet.
Gonzalez and company argued solar users should shoulder more of those costs as well.
“It’s easy to call me a sell out… harder to digest the hard truth about the regressive way we structure energy rates,” Gonzalez tweeted on June 2.
But climate and environment groups said Gonazlez’s bill would have killed the solar industry and set a bad precedent for other states looking to follow California’s golden reputation for climate policy.
San Diego groups like the Climate Action Campaign (behind the region’s largest publicly-run energy purchasing organization) Protect Our Communities Foundation (which advocated for the ousting of privately run San Diego Gas and Electric in favor of total public control over power) and San Diego Green New Deal Alliance rallied outside of the Chula Vista Public Library on Wednesday, alongside a massive inflatable Monopoly man to make their point.
They called Gonzalez’s bill a “profit grab” by private utilities because it cut incentives for individuals to put solar on their rooftops, which especially hurts those who don’t own their solar panels but are basically renting the equipment from companies like Tesla instead.
“SDG&E would rather see an end to rooftop solar and prefer utility-scale solar so they get the (renewable) credits and build transmission lines for which they get a 10 percent return on investment,” said Tara Hammond, founder of Hammond Climate Solutions.
SDG&E didn’t take a position on the bill, said spokeswoman Helen Gao.
“Contrary to what some have said, (solar incentive) reform will not result in additional revenue for utilities,” Gao wrote in an email.
Gao said California’s three investor-owned utilities filed proposed reforms to solar incentives with state regulator, calling it “an effort to stop the exacerbation of the existing cost shift that is unfairly being shouldered by customers who do not have solar systems on their roof.”
“A change is essential if we are going to focus on achieving rate equity in every neighborhood,” Gao wrote.
Not all environment groups were in alignment.
The National Resource Defense Council told Gonzalez in a May 28 letter that it supported the bill, and agreed with the CPUC’s concern that the clean energy shift is borne by poorer Californians. But it wants the CPUC to handle solar credits, not the Legislature.
The solar industry was against the bill, for obvious reasons. Bernadette Del Chiarro of the California Solar and Storage Association told KPBS the bill removes the financial incentive for anyone but the super rich to install rooftop solar.
“There will be no solar, rooftop solar jobs, which are 65,000 strong in the state of California,” Del Chiarro said. “If this bill goes through there simply will be no market for rooftop solar except for a handful of extremely wealthy people for whom cost is no object.”
Labor groups representing electricians appear to be all for such a change, many of which already have long-term contracts with utility companies.
A lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers told SactoPolitico.com that solar users should share the costs of infrastructure and wildfire mitigation.
And Gonzalez tweeted that the bill required solar workers be paid prevailing wages, which generally guarantee higher hourly rates to workers.
This all might be worked out by a completely different body in the end – that is the CPUC, the state’s utility regulators.
The CPUC is already working to update the solar incentive structure, called net energy metering in policy speak. Gonzalez’s bill is a kind of kick in the CPUC’s pants in that, if regulators fail to adopt a new policy by then, the agency would have had to follow the one laid out in her bill – if it passed.
Among the Assembly members who voted no were two San Diego Democrats, Assemblymen Brian Maienschein and Chris Ward, a proponent of clean energy moves like the formation of San Diego Community Power. (Side note: Interestingly, Eddie Price, the chair of San Diego Community Power’s community advisory committee, urged its governing board to “strongly oppose” the bill during a May 27 meeting. The board ultimately decided not to take any position.)
Another Democrat, Carlsbad City Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel, who’s running for state Senate, sent out a missive against the bill this week.
“As a public health professional and woman of color I have fought for environmental justice and equity to address climate change and its health impacts that unduly burden low income communities,” she wrote in a press release. “We need to diversify our options to address our climate change goals and removing incentives for solar will not achieve that.
Mayors at Odds Over SB 9
In a new Union-Tribune op-ed, Mayor Todd Gloria hypes SB 9, the bill by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins that would allow duplexes and four-plexes on single-family lots.
Gloria’s support for the measure isn’t a surprise: As a member of the Assembly last year, he voted for a nearly identical bill that failed. The revived version of that bill is now SB 9.
In his commentary, Gloria issued a challenge to those who complain about homelessness and housing affordability: Support solutions, or stop complaining. “If you’re telling us that you’re embarrassed by the homelessness that plagues our city, you’re telling us that you’ll accept affordable homes in your community,” he writes.
Meanwhile, Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner expanded on why she doesn’t support the measure. In last week’s Sacramento Report, she said she opposes the bill and doesn’t think it will work for wealthy coastal communities like hers.
In a series of comments she wrote in response to that piece, Heebner said that because the measure doesn’t include affordable housing provisions, it could make housing more expensive in places like Solana Beach: “It’s an unfounded myth that in desirable places more supply will drive prices down,” she wrote.
The bill will now start making its way through the Assembly, where it got hung up at the last minute last year, leading to some serious tension between Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
San Diego Grab Bag
Assemblywoman Akilah Weber joined the Legislature too late to introduce any new bills of her own this session, but has signed on as author to an existing effort, making it her first bill.
AB 1207, originally introduced by Assemblywoman Luz Rivas, establishes a new state task force to study the COVID-19 pandemic and develop strategies to navigate future pandemics. Weber is a medical doctor.
“I worked in the hospitals throughout the pandemic, and I witnessed the real lives of people affected by COVID-19. The next pandemic is not a matter of ‘if,’ it is a matter of ‘when,’” she wrote in a press release. “I want to ensure we do everything we can to invest in sustainable plans that value the life and health of all Californians during a pandemic.”
The Legislature reached an early budget agreement this week (they’ll still need to iron out some disagreements with Gov. Gavin Newsom before the June 15 budget deadline).
One item of note: It includes $180 million to increase in-state enrollment at UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego, the three most sought-after University of California campuses. The money would make up for the much higher tuition paid by out-of-state students.
Here’s a good CalMatters explanation of what else is in the budget.
Secretary of State Shirley Weber talked to the New York Times about the first meeting of the state reparations task force she created through legislation last year.
One piece of the interview that caught my eye: “Most of those on the panel have done research on reparations, and they have a vision that’s greater than what we’ve ever done. We don’t want this to be another affirmative action.”
Weber goes on to explain that she’s not against affirmative action, but she certainly doesn’t sound like a cheerleader for it.
Yet Weber was the main proponent in 2020 of Prop. 16, an effort to reinstate affirmative action in California.
Golden State News
- This is a lovely feature on the legislative staffer who’s at the forefront of creating LGBTQ policy. (19th News)
- Flipping empty malls and big-box stores into housing could be harder than it sounds. (Marketplace)
- An extraordinary show of force against protestors by Oakland police was prompted by two thrown water bottles. (Oaklandside)